Armed and Educated

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Image: July 30, 1923. Washington, D.C. "Big gun." National Photo Co.

Given the rash of campus shootings in the news — most recently at Umpqua Community College— as well as the controversy surrounding open carry laws in Texas and elsewhere, we asked a handful of professors to weigh in on the issues. Specifically: Should professors be armed in the classroom? And would you personally ever carry a gun into your classroom? Here’s what they said (for more viewpoints, read essays in The Chronicle by Linda Van Ingen, Margaret Olin, and Cody T. Luff and in Vitae by Nathaniel C. Oliver):

David B. Kopel
research director, Independence Institute
adjunct professor of advanced constitutional law
Sturm College of Law, University of Denver

In Colorado, licensed gun owners have been legally allowed to bring their guns into the classroom at public institutions of higher education since 2003, based on a law written by the state’s sheriffs. In a 2012 case before the Colorado Supreme Court, I filed an amicus brief on behalf of the sheriffs and a unanimous Colorado Supreme Court agreed with our argument that the University of Colorado was not exempt from that law.

If you teach at a college or university anywhere other than Hawaii or New Jersey, it is almost certain that some of your colleagues are currently carrying licensed handguns when not on campus. All but a few states have fair procedures for issuing concealed carry permits to law-abiding adults who have safety training and who pass background checks. The typical system requires a biometric check (fingerprints) that takes several weeks or months to process. The standards for a permit to carry are considerably more rigorous than for simply owning a gun in one’s home.

If your institution is in one of the few states that does not follow the standard system, some of your colleagues are probably still lawfully carrying. In California, for example, a minority of counties (e.g., San Francisco) rarely issue concealed-weapon permits, but your commuting colleagues may live in counties that do. Or if you teach in Maryland, some your colleagues who live in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, or West Virginia likely have such permits.

Given that your colleagues have been issued permits that are valid almost everywhere in the state, is there something about your campus that turns law-abiding professors into violent criminals? In Wisconsin, your colleagues can already carry on campus in their cars and on campus grounds, but not in campus buildings. Is there something about the buildings at Wisconsin colleges and universities that turns people into incipient criminals once they walk inside?

With licensed carry having been the norm in the United States for two decades, there are abundant data about licensees’ behavior — and they are vastly more law-abiding than the general population.

Given that university campuses generally have lower violent crime rates than other places, is there any benefit from having a concealed-weapon permit? As in the off-campus world, people sometimes have to walk into dark parking garages late at night. When professors drive to or from campus, their automobiles can break down, leaving them isolated in dangerous circumstances. Rapists and muggers sometimes prey on college campuses and nearby areas.

But maybe you are worried that one of your colleagues might shoot you using that licensed concealed weapon. At the University of Alabama at Huntsville, in 2010, a biology professor who had been denied tenure murdered three colleagues and wounded three others. She had previously murdered her brother, in Massachusetts, in 1986, but the prosecution was bungled because local police did not share incriminating evidence with the state police. Similarly, in 1992 at Concordia University in Montreal, a mechanical engineering professor murdered four colleagues and wounded one. He had long been known as disruptive and dangerous, and since 1989 he had been talking about shooting someone. Neither of the above criminals had a concealed carry permit.

We know from experience that almost all notorious mass shootings take place in so-called “gun free zones” — places where the criminal is guaranteed that all the victims will be defenseless. Persons who are not deterred by the prospect of life in prison (or who are suicidal) are not deterred by laws about where carrying is allowed. Genuine gun-free zones, such as those at courthouses, are enforced by metal detectors and backed by armed guards. Pretend gun-free zones, which are enforced only by signage, have become a magnet for criminals.

You probably have not heard about the mass shootings at a school in Pearl, Miss., or at a middle-school dance in Edinboro, Penn., or at a megachurch in Colorado Springs. That is because law-abiding citizens with firearms intervened to stop the killers. This has happened many times in the United States, including one case at a law school.

At Appalachian Law School, in Grundy, Va., in 2002, a former student went to the office of two professors, and killed them both at close range with a handgun, and also killed a student. Law student Tracy Bridges, formerly a sheriff‘s deputy, ran to his automobile and retrieved his .357 magnum revolver. Another student, Mikael Gross, a police officer from North Carolina, went to his car and got his semi-automatic pistol and body armor. Gross and Bridges did not know about each other; they confronted the killer when he had left the building. Bridges shouted an order to the killer to drop his gun. The killer dropped the gun, and was wrestled to the ground by other law students.

Colorado has two public universities with enrollments in the tens of thousands. Colorado State University has complied with the state’s licensed-carry statute from the law’s inception in 2003. The University of Colorado at Boulder came into compliance in 2012. Although there was much anxiety among the Boulder faculty about that, the experience there has been the same as at CSU: No students threatening professors over grades, no gunplay during controversial classroom discussions, and no misbehavior by lawfully armed professors.

Some of your colleagues are already legally carrying guns off-campus. Allowing them to do so on-campus — perhaps with extra, rigorous training — will reduce the possibility that a maniac will consider your institution a soft target.

James M. Lang
professor of English
director of the Center for Teaching Excellence
Assumption College

Two years ago, in the wake of the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., I taught an upper-level writing course called “Argument and Persuasion.” Although we discussed a variety of controversial issues that semester, our culminating project, selected by the students and coordinated with another class, was to host a panel discussion open to the entire campus on the subject of gun control. Students in the two courses worked together to lay out the framework for the event, select the panelists, and advertise it to the community.

Entering that event, I held a position that aligned with my politically liberal views: I believed we needed more gun control, and lots of it. Even more fundamentally, I have never understood the American obsession with gun ownership. Guns were no part of my life growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, and have not been part of my adult life either. If any of my friends or family members own a gun, I don’t know about it. So I had little sympathy or understanding for pro-gun arguments of any kind.

Our panelists included a sociology professor from my campus, a local district attorney, a police detective, and someone from our campus ministry office. I expected to hear plenty of arguments and evidence supporting my convictions that we needed more and stricter gun laws. But that didn’t happen. At the end of the session, I left just as personally opposed to guns as I have ever been, but far less convinced that rhetorical or legal maneuvers in support of gun control would have any real effect on gun violence in America.

The problem, according to our panelists, was not guns — it was poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and a culture of violence in America. We had all of the gun laws we needed; what we lacked were the economic resources and the national will to enforce those laws, not to mention to reduce poverty in our cities, where most gun violence actually occurs. School shootings, as tragic as they are, represent a very tiny fraction of the gun violence that really plagues America in the 21st century.

I still have no sympathy for the Second Amendment and other principles of our political and legal system that enable wide gun ownership in America, and would love to see them repealed. At the same time, I recognize that they are the laws of my land, and that those laws extend to the campuses of public universities. I would not endorse a push by public colleges and universities to distance or exempt themselves from other social legislation, such as laws governing hiring practices or sexual assault.

But I also would not teach in a classroom that contained a gun — nor do I believe that any college professor should have to do so. Classrooms should be safe places where students can feel free to voice controversial positions or test out unformed ideas, receive feedback on those positions, and revise and refine them. I would rather have a student articulate his racist views in my classroom, where we can discuss them, than have him hold those views silently throughout his years on campus and carry them, unchanged, into the world after graduation.

Guns in a classroom would act as a deterrent to a safe, open, learning environment. Students might censor themselves from voicing strong positions for fear of angering a gun-toting peer. Gun-free classrooms and campuses may not guarantee that we never experience another school shooting, but they will ensure that classrooms and campuses continue to exist as they should: as safe places for conversation, collaboration, exploration, and creation.

So while I recognize that the law may allow guns in classrooms, I would never allow them in my classroom. If you are like me, that leaves available to you the one option we have whenever our strongest convictions conflict with the law, and we lack the individual ability to change that law through formal legal channels: civil disobedience.

Any hope that we have to reduce gun violence in this country must come from the ground up, with widespread civil disobedience and social movements —not from the top down, with legal efforts that strike me as doomed in our current political climate. On public university campuses, I believe faculty and students should refuse to enter classrooms where guns are allowed, and faculty should never have to teach with a gun in the room. If your economic circumstances allow you to engage in this simple act of civil disobedience, I urge you to take that stand.

As a professor at a private Roman Catholic college in the most liberal state in the country, I will not have to take that stand. My responsibility, like that of my institution, must take a different form — one that I hope Catholic institutions will consider adopting in the face of misguided political efforts to promote the presence of guns everywhere. I make this appeal especially to Catholic colleges and universities in the United States that have the opportunity to lead the way in our effort, not to change laws, but to offer a faith-based critique of the American culture of gun worship.

I urge Catholic colleges and universities to proclaim some version of the following statement to all who enter their campus grounds: “We are a Catholic institution; guns have no place here.” I urge them further to consider how they can take the lead on promoting peaceful and gun-free campuses by sponsoring debates, speakers, and information sessions on reducing gun ownership and gun-worship in America — not necessarily by legal means, but by highlighting the fundamental contradiction that exists between pro-gun rhetoric and the words and actions of Christ. I urge faculty at Catholic colleges and universities (and all other faculty) to pledge personally and publicly to reject the presence of guns in their classrooms with the Twitter hashtag: #NoGunsInMyClassroom.

Debates about guns in America have taken center stage in the political arena. That presents a terrific opportunity for the American Catholic church to assert a strong position on the question, one supported and enhanced by its colleges and universities. In doing so, it would follow the lead of Pope Francis, whose recent encyclical promoted a strong new agenda of environmental leadership for the Catholic church. The Catholic colleges and universities of the United States should take an equally bold stance of their own on guns — making a vocal public case for the fact that guns have no place in Catholic institutions, on college campuses, or in our classrooms.

Susan Montez
professor of English
Norwalk Community College

Growing up in rural Virginia, I recall guns being a staple of life. Handguns, rifles, and shotguns were a part of most every household. As children, we were told to stay away from guns because they might be loaded, but firearms weren’t locked away. Shotguns were usually in the corner, rifles were on the wall, and handguns were in the top of the closet. Moreover, boys hunted with shotguns and rifles by the time they were 10. I finally got my own shotgun when I was 16: a single-barrel Stevens.

Suffice it to say I am comfortable around guns.

Still, when asked if I thought faculty members on campuses should be armed, the question gave me pause. I would actually be comfortable with my colleagues holstering Smith & Wessons, and part of me thinks, “Yes. We should be armed.” Shooters wouldn’t come into a classroom where they knew the professor had a gun.

Yet I can’t unequivocally say arming faculty is the right thing to do. In fact, I think it’s probably the wrong thing to do — not because I think the idea in itself is absurd, but because it’s absurd to believe all instructors could be trained to use firearms in an effective fashion, and it is absurd to make them responsible for the safety of students by wielding guns.

I, personally, wouldn’t mind carrying a gun to class, but I’m one individual. Many — probably most — faculty members would take issue with carrying a gun, and it would be outrageous to make them take up arms. What’s more, gun accidents do happen. People who grew up in gun cultures can usually cite three gun accidents they know of personally. Arming faculty who don’t want to be armed could only lead to disaster, not to mention infighting between professors who willingly carried a gun and those who refused to do so.

Nonetheless, as mass shootings become a monthly event, it’s time for academics to publicly consider how to respond. It is not right to leave college campuses defenseless. Of course, there’s stricter gun control, but even after all of the shootings, it really doesn’t look like stricter gun control is going to happen any time soon. The NRA, of which I am not a member, is winning.

Meanwhile, we keep waiting for the magic legislation that will cure maniacs from getting assault weapons while people sit in classrooms vulnerable to the next mad man. At this point, perhaps it is time to consider allowing more firearms on campus. Perhaps we should have armed security, which would be very expensive for most colleges. Or perhaps we need the presence of metal detectors in every campus building, which also would be expensive and would render the college experience a logistical nightmare.

Personally I would prefer arming professors over metal detectors in every building. But allowing guns in college classrooms would definitely take faculty buy-in, and I don’t think they would approve on most campuses. If the frequency of mass shootings continues to increase, or even stays the same, some type of concrete action must be taken. Can we afford to sit back and do nothing?

Rob Jenkins
associate professor of English
Georgia Perimeter College

Like many people, I’ve always harbored an idyllic view of college as a relatively sheltered place where young people can grow and learn in the company of like-minded, sympathetic classmates and demanding but caring professors. Guns don’t seem to belong in that picture.

And yet in several recent high-profile cases, people have brought guns onto college campuses, and they’ve done so for one reason: to kill.

Set aside for a moment the question of whether stricter gun-control laws would have prevented the Umpqua Community College shooting or similar incidents. That is uncertain, at best. What we do know is that, even in areas of the country with the strictest laws, determined criminals can still get their hands on guns. If some guy really wants to shoot up your campus, he can probably acquire the means to do so.

Now he’s poised outside your classroom, locked and loaded, and bent on mayhem. What's to stop him? Not state laws or college policies banning guns on campus. Not signs declaring the property a gun-free zone. Not the best intentions of politicians and administrators. Probably not even the police, who are statistically unlikely to arrive before multiple victims have been killed or wounded.

Barring a miracle, about the only thing that can prevent the shooter from carrying out his murderous agenda, once he’s at your door, is encountering someone with the will and capacity to oppose him — in other words, another armed individual. On college campuses, those are in conspicuously short supply.

Look, I don’t like the idea of professors packing any better than you do. I certainly don’t think anyone who objects to guns, or who doesn’t believe in using violence even to defend innocent lives, should feel pressured to do so in a college classroom. But I would argue that responsible staff members who wish to carry, who qualify for the appropriate permits, and who are willing to undergo special training, should have that right. I believe it could potentially save lives.

The same argument applies to certain students — specifically, to those who are over 21, qualify for concealed carry permits, and have the requisite training. At the very least, military veterans who have been honorably discharged and have no history of mental illness should be able to carry guns on campus (or pretty much anywhere else). They’ve earned that right, along with our gratitude. Since there are plenty of veterans attending college these days, that could serve as a powerful deterrent to potential shooters who otherwise regard gun-free campuses as free-fire zones.

Just imagine if the Army vet who tried to stop the Umpqua shooter outside the classroom — and was shot five times for his efforts — had had a gun of his own in that moment. He could have saved lives.

None of this is ideal. No rational person wants to see the Quad turn into the O.K. Corral. But in situations where only the criminals have guns, the innocent are sitting ducks.

Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts
professor of English
Community College of Philadelphia

The issue of arming professors never became clearer to me than when I sat in the lobby of my campus, on lockdown, or “shelter in place,” while the police and Homeland Security searched for a gunman. I was frightened. I was anxious. I frantically scanned the news coming in on my phone via text messages from family and friends, my Facebook timeline, and the college messaging service, to find out what was going on and what I should do. I also felt extremely helpless.

What exactly would I do if confronted by a gunman in my classroom?

I had no idea.

And yet, when asked whether a faculty member should be allowed to carry a gun into a college classroom, my answer is still a resounding: No.

What is this, the Wild West? Will colleges and universities invest in training faculty in the use of firearms? Will institutions be willing to run background checks on all professors to make sure that we should be allowed to carry?

See, there are complexities to the issue that I don’t think that most colleges and universities are equipped to handle. And I honestly don’t think that being reactive is the answer. Part of what we do as scholars is ask questions, to solve problems, to research and get to the root an issue. And, in many cases, the issue of school shootings doesn’t start with a gun. Plus, the answer to a gun problem is not more guns.

If you want to arm me, arm me with the ability to deal with a student’s mental-health issues effectively. I’ve had a couple of confrontations with students where clearly there was something going on, some challenge or another, but instead of being able to help the student get what they need — beyond some general statement about the availability of resources at the start of the semester — I’m often faced with more bureaucracy than solutions.

In light of recent shootings at colleges and universities, do security on campus need to be better trained? Yes. Should we consider arming security guards? Possibly. Are metal detectors at all entrances necessary? Most likely. Do I need a permit to carry a gun into the classroom? No. I need to teach and I need students who have been given every opportunity to be their best academically, yes, but also psychologically and emotionally.

Until we start taking mental-health issues seriously on campus and in our country — starting with removing the stigma — then I suspect that arming professors will do nothing but add fuel to an already raging wildfire.

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